MOSCOW — Russia intensified its criticism of the new government in neighboring Ukraine on Monday, questioning the legitimacy of the interim authorities and accusing them of using dictatorial and “sometimes terrorist methods” to usurp power and silence dissent in the country’s Russian-speaking south and east.
The escalating denunciations from Moscow, from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the Foreign Ministry, provided the strongest signals yet that Russia may not easily accept the political changes wrought by the political convulsions in Ukraine, where President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed over the weekend after the mass killings of protesters last week.
Also Monday, the top Russian and NATO commanders conferred by phone, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
It quoted the Defense Ministry as saying that General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of general staff, spoke with General Philip Breedlove, the commander of NATO in Europe, and the “two sides expressed concern over the situation in Ukraine.”
Medvedev suggested that economic agreements with Ukraine could be renegotiated and declared that instability there was “a real threat to our interests and to our citizens’ lives and health.”
Russia’s leadership has made its anger over the popular uprising in Ukraine clear from the beginning of the crisis, but Medvedev’s remarks were the most extensive Russian reaction since Yanukovych fled Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, on Saturday. “Strictly speaking, today there is no one to talk to there,” Medvedev said in remarks reported by Interfax. “The legitimacy of a whole host of government bodies is raising huge doubts.”
“If people crossing Kiev in black masks and Kalashnikov rifles are considered a government,” Medvedev said, “it will be difficult for us to work with such a government.”
President Vladimir Putin avoided making public comments on the Ukraine developments during the Sochi Games but might soon have to face a difficult choice: continue to take a diplomatic course, which could hurt him at home, or take the equally risky step of intervening militarily.
Putin has declared Ukraine vital to Russia’s interests. It is home to millions of Russian speakers and hosts a major Russian navy base.
Some in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east and south are pressing Moscow to help protect them against what they fear could be violence by the victorious protesters who toppled Yanukovych, a leader backed by the Kremlin.
If Moscow openly backs separatist-minded groups in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula that serves as the base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, it could unleash hostilities that Europe hasn’t seen since the Balkan wars.
And ignoring pleas for help from pro-Russian groups in Ukraine could shatter Putin’s carefully crafted image of the tough ruler eager to stand up to the West.
Putin’s best hope for striking a peaceful compromise on the issue could be Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who was freed Saturday after more than 2½ years behind bars. Tymoshenko, who narrowly lost the 2010 presidential vote to Yanukovych and was imprisoned on abuse of office charges, flew to the capital after her release to speak to tens of thousands of demonstrators at Kiev’s Independence Square.
She is considered a favorite to win the Ukrainian presidency in early elections set for May, should she decide to run. Putin, who had good ties with the former prime minister in the past, could hope to strike a deal with her that would safeguard Russian interests without the need to resort to force.
‘If people crossing Kiev in black masks and Kalashnikov rifles are considered a government, it will be difficult for us to work with such a government.’
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday on its website that an agreement announced Friday aimed at easing the crisis, brokered by the European Union, had been used “only as a cover to promote a scenario of forced change of power in Ukraine.”
That agreement, which would have kept Yanukovych in power until later this year, quickly unraveled as street protesters in Kiev demanded that he resign immediately.
“A course has been set to use dictatorial and sometimes terrorist methods to suppress dissenters in various regions,” the Foreign Ministry statement said, alluding to areas in Ukraine’s east and south where pro-Russian sentiment is stronger.Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.